At this point, accusations that the White House is overly political—that a given president is using the tools of the presidency not to govern but to campaign—are simply part of the baseline political theater in this country, the ceaseless back-and-forth on the cable news shows and blogs. While there have certainly been well-documented real-life examples, like the George W. Bush administration’s dismissal of U.S. attorneys for allegedly politically motivated reasons, for the most part this accusation has been adulterated by the frequency with which it is bandied about.
Nevertheless, there’s an important story here in tracing how these processes work and how they’ve evolved over time—namely, in explaining how the White House has come to be the seat not just of presidential power, but of political power for whichever party the president represents.
These are the issues covered by U.S. Naval Academy political science professor Brendan J. Doherty in his new book, The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign. The book covers in nitty-gritty detail the particulars of how presidents raise money, how the White House has been used as a political organ (both officially and unofficially), and how the marriage of policy and politics in the Oval Office affects our democracy.
The book contains its fair share of unexpected observations. For example, Doherty found that presidents spend something like 85% of their fundraising time generating cash not for themselves, but for others in the party. Presidents have always played an important party-building role, of course, but Doherty was surprised at just how much work they do for other people. “The amount of time that presidents spend building their party as opposed to just advancing their own electoral interests was much more than I expected,” he told The Daily Beast.
The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign also lends some important historical context to our current understanding of money and politics. President Obama is a prime example. At first glance, it appears that he has a uniquely voracious appetite for fundraising—according to Doherty, he’s attended more than 250 fundraisers in his first term, “which blows away anything that any of the past five presidents did in their first terms.” But Obama still has a ways to go before he can compete with one of the all-time fundraising juggernauts: Bill Clinton in his second term. At the time, said Doherty, Clinton had a lot on his plate in terms of financial obligations: Paying back the debt the party incurred during the 1996 elections, taking back the House, which was lost to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years in 1998 (and which was vital not only for the usual reasons, but because a Democratic House speaker would likely shut down the impeachment effort against him), and get his wife elected as a senator and his vice-president elected as his successor. So he went to a lot of fundraisers—almost 500, by Doherty’s count, or one every three days during his second term.
So how does Obama stand up against Bush, who has long been criticized for the extent to which he politicized his office? Doherty said that it’s very hard to measure the politicization of the White House in a careful, rigorous way across administrations. He did, however, emphasize that there’s been a clear trajectory toward ramping up the political role of the White House since the establishment of the White House Office of Political Affairs at the start of the Reagan administration—and that the past three administrations have devoted even more time to electoral concerns throughout their terms in office.
“Accusations of politicizing the White House for electoral gain are almost as old as the republic itself,” Doherty said. “That said, there was substantial objective evidence of politicization within the Bush White House, whether it was the U.S. attorneys scandal, or whether it was the central importance of Karl Rove within the White House itself.”
“When you can no longer clearly divide the time you are governing from the time you are campaigning, when everyone is thinking about the next election, then it is hard to focus on solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems.”
“How that stacks up with the Obama administration is difficult to say. If you look simply at the staffing, there definitely has been a strong interconnectedness between political advisers on the campaign and the White House ... But the extent to which any group of political advisers is improperly politicizing the White House, as opposed to simply helping the president make good decisions while understanding the political implications, is very difficult to assess.”
What is clear is that this trend is detracting from our system of government. “When you can no longer clearly divide the time you are governing from the time you are campaigning,” said Doherty, “when everyone is thinking about the next election, then it is hard to focus on solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems.”